Accepting money from donors and foundations

(We’re speaking here of existing journalistic organizations that receive money from foundations or donors, or organizations set up by people with mainly philanthropic intent. For news organizations that are launched by commercial brands, see the module “News ventures launched by companies.”)

The economic and media business-model disruptions of the early 21st century may be leading us into what Ryan Chittum of Columbia Journalism Review called the “Billionaire Savior Phase” of the legacy media breakdown. Tech industry moguls such as Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Bezos, described by Jack Shafer as the “new Medicis funding journalism”, have been stepping in to propose new models of journalism or to “rescue” struggling or failing legacy media.

Concurrently, new models of non-profit and philanthropically funded journalism, often on shoestring budgets far below those promised by the new media moguls, have been springing up. Some have come in response to journalists’ desires to produce work to enhance the public good untainted by corporate or business-related concerns. Sometimes funding has come from public crowdsourcing.

Some high-profile ventures seem to be ideologically driven in a way designed to benefit independent, aggressive journalism that will serve the public good without “fear or favor.” High-profile journalists with reputations for quality work, such as former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, have joined these new ventures.

Yet moguls come in all ideological stripes, and some may see media entities as a way to pursue their agendas. Their willingness to fund unprofitable ventures for the long-term or to remain hands-off in editorial matters is unknown. Long-term thinkers such as Marc Andreessen see a blend of different approaches and ownership models in the future.

New funding models are raising new ethical questions that some journalists are facing for the first time. Other ethical questions resemble those commercial news operations face in trying to ensure independence from advertisers. Here are representative samples of questions you may face in coming years:

If the owners and funders of your news organization set out directly and transparently to impose their ideology on the news organization, is that OK with you?
Would you work for an organization that does not share your ideology? If you agree with the organization’s approach, is that OK? Will you mind being painted as an advocate of one approach or another?
Will you insist that the organization be transparent about its position, especially if it affects the news product and not just the editorial page? Are you willing to be personally transparent about what you stand for?
If the owners and funders say they intend to observe the traditional metaphorical wall separating editorial from business considerations, will you expect complete silence from the owner regarding the journalism you create? Will you want or encourage the owner/funder to come to editorial meetings? Suppose the funder seeks pre-publication review of your work?

The same questions arise if your work is funded by individuals through crowdsourcing. Many will consider it a given that they should be able to observe your work in progress. Should you at least have a liaison who communicates with the crowdfunders?

Here is a situation that is becoming more common in this transitional age: An individual or foundation offers funding for a specific purpose, such as coverage of hunger in Africa, the economy or technological innovation. Often such funders don’t have a strong position on the issue; they just want it covered more. But what if the funder has an agenda – even if you didn’t know it at the start? In such a case, what rules should the publication lay down about contact between the funder and the staff? What would you do if the funder learns that your story doesn’t have the “spin” desired on the subject in question and threatens to pull the funding unless the story is changed?

For all of its limitations, the traditional profit-driven business model of media was a known quantity. The best media entities and journalists found ways to balance the sometimes competing needs of the business and editorial sides. Good publishers – more or less – respected and defended the separation of editorial from business decisions. A system of internal and external checks and balances existed.

New models of funding may create dilemmas that are qualitatively different from those of “traditional” commercial media. In response, new media may themselves have to establish new ground rules and present them to the public in a transparent fashion.

Journalism’s most valuable “currency” is credibility. As institutional and industry changes continue at a remarkable pace, journalists must consider their relationships to the funding mechanisms of their new reality and find new ways to balance their desire to operate independently with the reality of paying the bills.

The main author of this article is Alan D. Abbey of the Shalom Hartman Institute.